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Review of "Chance Witness: An Outsider’s Life in Politics" by


15 December 2014

Matthew Parris is a journalist who writes regularly in the Times, the Spectator and other media and also appears regularly on BBC Radio 4. This book is his autobiography up to about the age of 50, having been written in the year 2000. His Wikipedia entry provides a quick thumbnail sketch of his life.

I bought the book when it was mentioned in a Clare College newsletter (see below) whereupon it was added to my growing reading backlog. If asked, I would have guessed, quite wrongly, that I bought it four or five years ago. After recently arranging to have lunch with Matthew, I decided I should read it before the lunch. When I opened the book, I saw that it was first published in 2002. Indeed the website has confirmed that I bought the book in October 2002. How time flies!

Matthew Parris and me

It is impossible for me to be objective about this book. For three years, 1969 – 1972, Matthew and I were undergraduates together at Clare College Cambridge. Clare is a relatively small college, presently admitting 130 undergraduates per year and I recall that in my time the number was a little smaller, admitting around 100 per year. Furthermore Matthew and I were loosely members of the same group of friends. (Conversely I have since encountered people who were at Clare for all three years with me of whom I was completely oblivious!)

After leaving Cambridge I quickly lost touch with my friends at the college due to a combination of limited technology (paper letters are very limiting compared to modern social media!), geographical dispersion and absorption in one’s own career and family life. However you never forget those you knew well. Indeed those three years at Clare form a lifelong psychological and emotional bond. I missed Matthew's election as an MP in 1979, but a year or so later recognised his voice when he was being interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme.

Clare College has a reunion dinner every 10 years after people graduate. My increasingly rusty memory cannot recall whether we met at the 1982 reunion. I did however make a point of finding Matthew at the fringe meeting of the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality at the October 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton (the one bombed by the IRA) to say hello.

Since I bought my London flat in 2008 and also due to my increased involvement in politics and think tanks, I have bumped into Matthew from time to time and recently arranged to have lunch with him.

I found reading his autobiography a very moving experience, as it gives a very frank and very personal insight into someone I have known for over 40 years, albeit with very little contact for most of that time.

About the book

The book consists of 486 very readable pages in my hardback version, in 22 chapters along with two sets of photographs from his early days and his career.

It covers his life from childhood, and in particular his experiences of growing up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), realisation as a teenager that he was gay, his time at Clare College, two years at Yale, successful job applications to both the secret intelligence service and the foreign office, his move into Conservative politics and his time as an MP in the safe seat of West Derbyshire and his later move into the media.

There is no point in attempting to summarise the book. However to illustrate its frankness and honesty, I have reproduced below part of chapter 13 about his decision to leave the House of Commons.

13 Ducking Out

"I have never until now written about leaving Parliament. It was too painful, painful not because I had greatly loved or would miss the place but because I was letting my constituency down, and they had trusted me. I felt ashamed. But it is possible to know that what you are doing is at the same time indefensible and right. West Derbyshire could find another MP and would soon forget me. I could not find a useful career in politics.

It took me seven years to despair.

Perhaps only actors possess to a greater degree than politicians the ability to keep believing that, despite all the evidence, success is just around the corner. A price is paid for this faith: at times of unclouded success a politician (and actor, I think) secretly suspects a brewing storm. First, when he is succeeding, know that his success is hollow, a politician can be the last to see he is failing when anyone around him could tell him so. There are so many ways you can persuade yourself that the best is yet to come.

An absurd self-belief is, as I suggest in an earlier chapter, almost a prerequisite for the job. What other human type would spurn more secure career-paths and opt for a candidature in the first place – which any kindergarten actuary could tell you has only a limited chance of leading to a seat in the House?

Say you get that seat. Your great achievement attracts no more than a modest income, terrible hours, no clear sense of doing a proper job, no proper work schedule, nagging anxiety that your imperfections may at any moment become the subject of national media attention, no sensible demarcation between what time is your own and what is claimed by career, and splits between two places of work and two separate homes which gnaw cruelly at leisure and social life, human partnerships, marriages and families.

Nor is this job even secure. In all but the minority of seats which may be called ‘safe’ (where confidence is regularly dashed) you may be out on your ear after four, fourteen or forty years without explanation or apology and with only modest compensation – for reasons which are the most part wholly beyond your control. Even MPs with seats as safe as mine live in irrational fear of some kind of electoral ambush.

Having arrived full of pride and hope, you find yourself within a year swinging around in a vast mock-Gothic folly, knowing only that you must be there at all sorts of extraordinary times, persistently confused as to why.

Party discipline belittles you. Your secretary tolerates you. Your constituents pester you. Journalists deride you. Even your local newspaper ignores you. Your senior colleagues patronise you, your junior colleagues resent you and your equals mistrust you. The parliamentary clerks despise you and the Speaker fails to recognise you.

I recite these truths not to invite sympathy for an MP’s lot. You might as well feel sorry for the man who invests his whole fortune on lottery tickets but does not win the jackpot. He gambles and he loses. So it is with the man who intends to reach the top in politics. He freely chooses to put himself up for election, often against stiff competition. He chooses it because he believes there is something so special about him that his career will defy probability and prove the exception. A glance at his curriculum vitae will confirm that he has no good reason for this belief, but he entertains it in the comical hope that it may lead to greater things, although a glance at the arithmetic shows in the unlikelihood of that. In both senses of ‘vain’ he stumbles vainly on, teased and buoyed between bouts of despair by the strange subterranean conviction that destiny has singled him out.

He needs help. I did. Drowning in shallow water is a horribly pointless thing to do but, shallow as the water at Westminster is, better men and women than I have come to grief there, and I too was sinking.

Failing, however gently, is the only word, but failing in the lower reaches of the House of Commons is a very comfortable experience. Nobody (except the sketchwriters) laughs at you to your face, your constituency association carry on believing in you, some of them revere you, and for the regrettable lack of any outward sign that your great talents have been rewarded with any useful position in the governance of the country there is never a shortage of explanations.

You were too clever. You were too independent. You were too irreverent. You were too impatient. You were too nice. You had too great a sense of humour. You were gay.

All these thoughts had comforted me at different times as, while seven years slipped by, I noticed first the ablest, then the more average and finally the undeniably idiotic among my contemporaries tiptoeing past me up the political stairs at whose foot I still waited, asking earnest questions about bus services. It would have helped to have been too stupid to notice. Or too mad, like Dr Sir Alan Glyn. But slowly I realised.

The realisation that one is failing in politics comes, if it comes, very gradually, and to some it never comes at all. There is no single career path, no timetable for promotion and chance really does play an important part; so you can carry on for years – decades – believing that one fine day luck may come your way. To one or two it finally does. Their example encourage the rest, and above the parliamentary harbour a score of Madame Butterflies are keeping watch through the long, dark night of an obscure Commons career, waiting for their ship to come in.

You have been an MP for a couple of years and already some of those elected with you have their feet on the bottom rung, as bag-carriers (or parliamentary private secretaries) to the Great Ones? Ah, not every hare wins the race, you tell yourself. Then a couple of palpable tortoises go lumbering past you into the whips’ office, and still you’re nowhere.

Ah, you tell yourself, quality will out, in the end. And you throw yourself with redoubled energy into your work in the constituency where at least (you comfort yourself) your goodwill and intelligence are recognised. A whip makes an encouraging remark about that speech you made on the bus deregulation Bill. Aha! They’ve spotted me, perhaps.

Four years pass and a general election looms. ‘Were so glad you’re not a minister,’ a constituency stalwart tells you gamely. ‘We have you all to ourselves and with your hard work here you’ve really built up a good base in the constituency now. It’s going to stand those in good stead in the General.’ You congratulate yourself on what you now realise what your game-plan all along: to spend the early years taming the natives and securing your electoral base, so that when you are a minister the whole constituency thing will be sewn up, tickety-boo – running itself, almost.

The election comes and, sure enough, you do rather better than the nationally averaged swing. You return, heartened, to London. Now for your career.

More of your backbencher cohort are promoted. You are now in a distinct minority. ‘What we admire about you,’ your constituency chairman says, ‘is the way you don’t see the Commons as just a ladder to a ministerial limousine. Whatever happened to the independent backbencher for whom the Commons itself was reward enough? And aren’t there the revamped select committees now? I was reading in the Telegraph that these are the new power-base for MPs who don’t even want to be ministers…’

Your heart sinks. You aren’t on a select committee. And you did want to be a minister. Two years into your second term a couple of your cohort who were made ministers two years into their first, make it into the Cabinet. Hmm. More staying-power than might have been expected – from hares. In your constituency ignorant people start assuming that you are a minister by now, and you have to explain.

‘Our Member’s too principled to be lobby-fodder,’ your kindly constituency chairman, introducing you at a meeting, tells the audience, to polite applause. ‘The whips want sheep, but our MP votes with his conscience’ (more applause) ‘and I know you’d all much rather have a representative who speaks his mind and stand up for us, than a Minister for Paper Clips.’ More applause as you smile in what you hope is a modestly principled manner. Truth is, your voting record has been distinguished less by courage than caprice. Truth is, there were backbench colleagues who did take a defiant stand, stuck to their guns – and are junior ministers now.

Truth is, if they offered you Paper Clips you’d fall on the chief whip’s neck and weep with gratitude. But nobody has.

You soldier on. Nearly seven years down, now: and thirteen to go before the knighthood. ‘Knight of the Shires’ is something to be, isn’t it. Soon the Daily Mail will be calling you ‘senior’, ‘seasoned’ – and, in time, ‘veteran’. You ask the Commons Library to compile for you the length of time each one of your constituency’s MPs over the last century has served. How long until you’re the longest-serving? That would be something to be, wouldn’t it?

How many of your cohort, you muse, will still be in the House in forty years? You were, after all, one of the youngest of that crop, and you have one of the safest seats. ‘Father of the House’ – that would be something to be, wouldn’t it.

In the night you catch yourself wondering at what point in a backbencher’s Commons career the length of your Commons experience ceases to count as a plus on your CV (supposing, just supposing, you were to seek a new career) and turns to a minus as potential employers ask why the political career never took off."

Knowing Matthew personally I found the above text very painful to read. His skill as a writer conveys brilliantly the gradually increasing sense of despair.

I believe we still have not got it right regarding providing rewarding careers for Members of Parliament that do not involve trying to climb the ministerial ladder.

Other politicians

Although never on the ministerial ladder, Matthew was at the heart of Conservative politics during this era. Accordingly there are many insights into politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Michael Portillo running throughout the book.

Concluding comments

Reading the book reminded me of the way that one’s background either adds to or limits the options that are open to you. I was from a poor working-class family and for straightforward financial reasons needed to quickly find a career that was interesting while relatively secure and reasonably paid. For family reasons, as the only son, I also chose to live with my parents in Manchester, especially given the huge sacrifices they had made for me. This automatically ruled out careers working in London or overseas.

Matthew came from a middle-class family with a much broader range of connections and had a much broader range of choices regarding what to do about a career. I have seen this with my own children as they have had far more options than did I, due to having middle-class professional parents with no need to have our children live with us.

The book is extremely well written and, as I have illustrated with the extract above, extremely honest. It is a compelling read and will be completely absorbing to anyone who is interested in the history of the period 1979 – 2000.

While writing this review, I came across Simon Hoggart's review written on 12 October 2002 and also recommend reading that review.



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